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Worlds apart but the song remains the same

Date

Richard Hinds

Lesson learnt? ... the methods used to protect and propagate the Armstrong myth have rebounded so forcefully an entire sport has become a cautionary tale.

Lesson learnt? ... the methods used to protect and propagate the Armstrong myth have rebounded so forcefully an entire sport has become a cautionary tale. Photo: Reuters

Those facing the allegations are defended as ferociously as a rottweiler's puppy. They are, we are told by the reflexively supportive insiders, ''honourable'' and ''beyond reproach''. Not merely an elite competitor, but a legend. They are not deserving of such heavy-handed treatment by agenda-driven investigators and a cynical media.

The sport itself? Yes, it has its share of cheats and frauds. Rogues and fools who tarnish the reputation of the other brave, clean competitors. But, on race day, seeing is still believing. Besides, there is corruption in all walks of life. Don't let a few bad eggs ruin the party. Charge your glass and toast the spectacle.

The Tour de France? No - racing's spring carnival, where the droppings in the stalls are not the only thing creating a foul stench.

Concerning ... it is not the accusations against him, but the blithe "the show must go on" mentality that trivialises the potential gravity of the allegations themselves.

Concerning ... it is not the accusations against him, but the blithe "the show must go on" mentality that trivialises the potential gravity of the allegations themselves. Photo: Jenny Evans

This is hardly unprecedented. Racing history and corruption are like kindergartens and head lice. Given the sport is driven by betting, and favoured by the notorious and nefarious, a rich - even unintentionally entertaining - history of injections, ring-ins, boat races and even brutality is not merely unfortunate, it is inevitable.

But the parallels with cycling are worth considering. When it emerged - even before the Lance Armstrong evidence was tabled - that you needed to draw more blood than Dracula on prom night to compete in some Tours de France, cycling gained a similarly dubious reputation. Yet, in both cycling and racing, the identification of a few cheats in the past has created a convenient protective shield. It has been used to justify the counter-intuitive claim that exposing a tainted minority was evidence the majority were beyond reproach. The tip, we were are asked to believe, is proof there's no iceberg.

Of course, such was the endemic nature of the doping in cycling that pretence was absurd even before Armstrong lost his yellow halo. In racing, there remains a sense of denial. An apparent reluctance to look beyond what may well be a few isolated cases of inappropriate behaviour to find if cheating or breaking the rules is widespread.

The move by some owners to replace champion jockey Damien Oliver after allegations he made a $10,000 bet on a rival horse was appropriate - even if, wisely, the connections did not pre-empt any investigation with their justification. However, a radio interview with former jockey now media commentator, Simon Marshall, about the allegations betrayed a different mood within the industry.

Marshall said Oliver was a terrific bloke, a true professional. Besides, he added: ''We've got a great spring to look forward to.'' The character evidence might be apt. Oliver is fully entitled to the presumption of innocence and is not accused of any corruption. It is not the accusations against him, but the blithe ''the show must go on'' mentality that trivialises the potential gravity of the allegations themselves and - as the Tour de France has proven - can foster an industry-wide breakdown of the rules or even corruption.

Racing officials are doubtless concerned about the timing of the allegations, coming on the heels of the suspension of Danny Nikolic for his alleged intimidation of a steward. Spring is a lucrative shop window for a marginalised sport. But, if they are tempted to tread lightly for fear of offending the sensibilities of those in the marquees, they should take a lesson from the discredited UCI, and embarrassed local cycling officials lest racing's relative molehills come to replicate cycling's Alps.

The Tour de France is cycling's spring carnival. Yet, the methods used to protect and propagate the Armstrong myth have rebounded so forcefully an entire sport has become a cautionary tale.

There has been no evidence of race fixing in the Oliver case let alone any industry-wide problem, nor that the timing of recent allegations is anything but coincidental. But the Armstrong case tells us that the natural scepticism that drives the best investigative journalism should not be mistaken for cynicism.

It tells us, particularly, to be wary of the agendas of those who have most to lose when a sport is exposed to intensive scrutiny and adverse publicity. It tells us that, given the symbiotic nature of sports media and competitors, those closest are not always the first to reveal scandal. In the case of commentator Phil Liggett, the reverse can be true. It tells us that whistleblowers should not be reflexively vilified as Tyler Hamilton and others were.

A black cloud hangs over this carnival. Don't believe those who tell you the umbrellas are parasols.

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